A Better Game
I suppose every review of Bioshock 2 needs to start with a qualifying statement by the author expressing how they felt about the first Bioshock, to give their audience some perspective on the opinions to follow. So here's mine: I thought Bioshock 1 was a good game. It didn't blow my mind, change my world view, or revolutionize how I saw video games. That honour belongs to this game's true granddaddy: System Shock 2. Bioshock was a good game. Bioshock 2 is a better game. For some of you, that's all the review you'll need; for the rest, I shall elaborate.
Bioshock 2 returns to the twisted underwater city of Rapture to tell a tale ten years after the events of the first game. If you never played the first Bioshock, you'll still be able to follow the plot, though you'll probably be missing some essential context early on like "why is there a city underwater?" and "who are all these people in masks trying to beat me with lead pipes?" Previous survivors of Rapture might find themselves asking "how is anyone in the city still alive in the city after ten years? Where are they getting food and fresh water?" and they will honestly not receive an answer.
The hook to this sequel is the claim that you play as a Big Daddy, the beloved and feared mini-boss-slash-cover-model from the previous game. I found this claim to be a little false. There are some neat little touches to make you feel like a Big Daddy in the game: the heavier sound of your footsteps, the rounded edges of the screen to make it look as though you are peering through a diving helmet, the characteristic bass rumbles of pain when injured, and the inclusion of a hefty drill as the primary melee weapon. However, the main character still fundamentally controls and plays the same as any other first-person shooter protagonist. The game justifies this by classifying you as an "Alpha series" Big Daddy, a nonstandard model, but all the same: you are not one of the lumbering, damage absorbing hulks that would send Jack Ryan's essence hurling back to the Vita-Chamber faster than Atlas could ask "would you kindly?" Early on, a couple of Thuggish Splicers with wrenches for weapons present a significant challenge, easily taking off half your health with a single blow. You never feel quite as tough as a Big Daddy ought to feel.
After the opening cutscene ends and you're given control of Delta (your character), you'll find the game plays like most other shooters on the PS3. The default scheme sets the selection radials to L1/R1 and fire to the L2/R2 triggers. I've heard folks debate the merits of this setup, but for play in Bioshock 2, this worked just fine. The big new trick this time around is the ability to "dual-wield" a weapon and a plasmid, allowing you to fire both at once with the triggers, rather than having to switch between one or the other. Folks, this isn't a new feature: this is fixing a glaring oversight from the first game. Regardless, it works really well. The face buttons are arranged differently to include a dedicated melee attack button on Circle. Jump is Triangle, which I could never get used to; thankfully you never have to Jump during tense firefights, so it rarely became an issue. Clicking the right stick brings up iron sights, which helps you fire much more accurately but decreases your movement and prevents you from using plasmids. I thought this was a new feature, but apparently it was present in the first game as well. Healing is triggered with the right d-pad button, which seemed pretty awkward; you actually have to stop moving for a second to heal, which seems counter-intuitive. Thankfully the game helps you out a bit when near death by giving you a couple seconds to realize you need healing before taking you out. It might seem like a bit of a cheat, especially in a game that already includes the infamous difficulty-destroying Vita-Chambers, but it helped keep the player in the action. What really took me out of the action are those radials. They pause the game when you bring them up, which is useful when you have a full loadout of eight items and need to decide what's best to use. However, they pause the game when used. Tense firefights devolved into sessions of stopping every few minutes to decide on a new tool to use, a decision I could make leisurely with no fear of interruption. Bioshock 2 became a very cerebral shooter as I played, rather than a suspenseful experience.
Regardless of how it played, the experience looked gorgeous. I am not lucky enough to be able to play Bioshock 2 on a high-definition television, but even on my paltry set, Rapture looked beautifully destitute. The aesthetic behind Rapture's design is still a late 1950's art deco with grandiose embellishments, but the city's look is tempered with ten years of abuse and neglect under the ocean waves. Leaking walls & ceilings are rampant, coral growths cover areas that were once flooded, and yet there is not a single decayed corpse in the halls. There are plenty of fresh ones. There was some choppiness to the visuals and the sound closer to the end of the game, a few times during really key battles that greatly detracted from the action. There was also a few odd glitches with the game's handling of object physics. Collectible objects are often strewn across desks and arranged on shelves, but actually collecting one of them cause the remaining objects to react strangely. Some might bounce around, other would pass through the object they rested on, and a few might fly off in random directions. Speaking of these objects, they have a helpful shimmer to aid the player in spotting them from the myriad of non-interactive objects in the environment. This is helpful for spotting lone objects but damn annoying for the many shelves of booze bottles you'll find in Rapture's many offices and secret stills. Rapture's locales are nonetheless diverse despite their similar aesthetics: you'll find yourself in homes, offices, a creepy amusement park, and Rapture's own version of Arkham Asylum. No part felt more unique, however, nor more satisfyingly unsettling, than a late-game opportunity to see Rapture through more innocent eyes. I loved this sequence so much that I wished the game had more of it.
As a Big Daddy, you'll find yourself using much heftier firepower than your average Splicer; well, honestly, you'll just be using weapons that look and feel heftier, rather than having heftier effects. Each of the five ranged weapons in single-player feature two alternate ammunition types to be more effective against different foes. They can also receive up to three upgrades at Power To The People stations, of which the final one seems to make a significant change in the weapon's properties. For instance, the final Rivet Gun upgrade adds heated rivets which can set fire to opponents after two or three hits. This upgrade extends even to the gun's alternate ammunition. The star weapon in this arsenal has to be the Spear Gun, which after all upgrades becomes the game's defacto Sniper Rifle. Spears do heavy damage and send smaller opponents flying into walls, pinning them there. You can then collect the spear to replenish your ammo and watch the body collapse in a glorious ragdoll heap. Finally the new remote hacking tool and research camera are oh-so-satisfying.
The Plasmids are the real staples of Bioshock 2, moreso than the guns. The ability to dual-wield doesn't add much strategic depth to the shooting other than the same "stun with electricity, then hit 'em" strategy from the first game. Still, it's recklessly amusing to charge up a Winter Blast while laying down machinegun fire, then fire the Blast and get to shattering. Most plasmids have two levels of upgrades as well, some featuring charge-up abilities that change how the plasmid works and offers new utilizations. My favourite upgrade was easily Security Command, which went from a slightly useless Plasmid in the first game to a power that can summon helper robots with a simple squeeze of the trigger. A couple of new plasmids were introduced, like Scout, which allows players to perform some ghostly recon and use plasmids to disrupt enemies they have yet to encounter. Scout worked a little funky when caught in the middle of some of Rapture's scripted events. Gene tonics are also back; in a wise move, these equippable upgrades are no longer divided by categories. Most of these provide only minor effects, but a few new ones offer drastic changes, like the one that makes you a monster with your drill but prevents you from using any other weapon. This system got only more satisfying in this sequel, and my only disappointment was that there was never enough ADAM to purchase all available Plasmids and tonics.
In an effort to make you feel more like a Big Daddy, a new game mechanic is introduced called Gathering. In the first game you would defeat Big Daddies and then either rescue or harvest (read: kill) their Little Sisters to gain ADAM. In Bioshock 2 the rescue option has been changed to adopt. When you adopt a Little Sister, you can either bring her to a ventilation shaft where you are given the rescue or harvest options again, or you have have her lead you to a body ripe with ADAM to be gathered. These gathers are a completely new dynamic for the game. Once a body is located, you have all the time in the world to make the area as defensible as possible. Roughly a third of your weapons ammo and plasmids are focused on defense, giving you a wide variety of options, including automated mini-turrets, cyclone traps, and electrified tripwires. Once you set down the Little Sister to have her begin gathering ADAM, expect your position to be assaulted by multiple enemies. Sometimes these gathers seemed a little unfair by placing them near obvious entry points to be defended, then having the enemies flood in from a completely unforseen direction. Regardless, I enjoyed the Gathers so much that I consider them my favourite part of the game; they were battles I conducted at my own pace against my own fortifications. It also gave one an excuse to explore off the main path and see parts of Rapture that may have gone overlooked. Each Gather gives you extra ADAM, so taking the time to do them really helps give players a leg up for purchasing new Plasmids. You still have the option of rescuing or harvesting the Little Sister when the gathers are complete, allowing you to still chart your own course through the game's moral quandaries while still raking in the ADAM.
The first Bioshock's story was its core; without it, the game was just an atmospheric setting for a generic shooter. Bioshock 2 continues this tradition, including a vast array of audio logs from new characters and old ones. They will definitely appeal more to those who've played the first Bioshock because many of them make such direct reference to the first game that a new player would be hopelessly lost. In the effort of not spoiling too much, the game digs in a nice hook with the initial cutscene, set before the fall of Rapture and the events of the first game. You're introduced instantly to your own character, the Big Daddy Delta, as well as your Little Sister Eleanor and the game's antagonist, Sofia Lamb. You witness Delta's death in such a way that no one could ever survive it. You then wake up, several years later, to a Rapture in ruins.
Philisophically, Bioshock 2 strives to showcase a particular idealism within Rapture, just like it's predecessor. However, Andrew Ryan's individualist paradise is long dead, replaced by Sofia Lamb's cult of community. Despite these two wildly different philosophies, nothing much has changed in Rapture. There is still a moral exploration at work; the first Bioshock was fairly binary, where you either saved the Little Sisters or harvested them for selfish gain. Even with the new gather mechanics, that same binary choice is still in effect. The game also presents within the story opporunities to spare or punish key players in the plot. The big payoff to these choices is not the ability to earn different endings, however; these choices all boil down to the true, hidden meaning of Bioshock 2's plot. Your character is more than just a Big Daddy, according to the story; he is a father, and the choices he makes will shape the kind of person his progeny will become. I am not a father myself, but this theme resonated powerfully with me; when I fully came to realize it, I had more respect for the game than I ever had for its predecessor.
I would be remiss if I didn't also discuss the multiplayer, probably the last feature one would expect in a Bioshock sequel. The multiplayer is almost a separate game; it has cutscenes, audio logs, and different characters that tell an actual story set in a pre-fall Rapture. Thematically, the players are employees of Sinclair Solutions, hired to test out the latest weapons and plasmids. Mechanically, the game is a fairly by-the-numbers shooter. The weapons are standard, though there are unlockable upgrades. The plasmids offer some unique strategies, and there are unique ones to the multiplayer as well. As is the style of the time, multiplayer features are unlocked with a ranking system, making everything feel similar to shooters you've played before. The matchmaking was stable and got me into matches fairly consistently. In all, multiplayer is a fun diversion but certainly not a main selling point for the game.
Overall, Bioshock 2 is an excellent experience on the PS3. Despite a few bugs and unfulfilled promises, it offers an engrossing, impactful story around an engaging shooter with some unique twists. I would, however, recommend that players experience the first game before diving in.